Stop Calling It Street Food: Why Caterers are Missing the Point

Whether driven by the wider market or by client demands, contract caterers have drastically changed. They have evolved from offering simple hot meals for sustenance to being able to help improve company productivity, even sliding their way into being a key component of company culture. As the market continues to keep up with modern food trends, contract catering has probably seen a greater change to its identity than any segment of the foodservice industry.

But herein lies the issue; contract caterers are not trend setters, but trend followers. They imitate the trends of the greater market and apply them within the tight parameters they are given.

Which leads us to the most misused term in contract catering. By its very definition, street food is served and prepared in the streets. It’s not always pretty, nor is it great for your waist line. But it’s different. And fun. It has a rawness to it, with new vendors coming up weekly with new ideas. One doesn’t always know what the food offer will be when walking into one of London’s countless street food markets. This spontaneity is what makes it exciting, and why it is very much the opposite of contract catering.

Increasingly though, contract caterers are selling food items such as tagines, burgers, pasta dishes, burritos, pizzas (I could go on) under the name ‘street food’. We see them on black boards, on fridge windows, even plastered in big red letters on the back walls. STREET FOOD.

Customers know that it’s not street food. Caterers know that it’s not street food. It verges on false advertising and does a disservice to all those involved. So why are they doing it?

Can we really blame contract caterers for spicing up their offering with those words? Of course not. The trend has seen massive growth over the past few years and in a competitive market such as contract catering, where the right or wrong menu offer can be the difference when vying for a multi-million pound contract, small margins can sway the decision.

Caterers need to understand however that street food is more than just a set of trendy words. It’s a sector of the industry in its own right; with its own service style, culinary drivers, and setting. Street food is an operational divergence from what we have understood to be the norms of hospitality and caterers need to go further than simply adding a couple words on their walls to be seen as on trend. The market’s understanding and interest in food is continuously improving and playing them for fools will only help to caricaturise contract catering even further.

There remains a great opportunity for contract caterers to differentiate themselves from their competition by successfully implementing street food into their business. But it requires a lot more thought and effort.